Was It Sexism?

March 6, 2020

Politico: Was It Sexism?
By politico Magazine

A year ago, the enthusiasm was palpable: A historic group of six women were vying for the Democratic nomination, leading many to hope the United States would elect its first female president in 2020.

Today, the picture looks quite different: Five of those women have dropped out—most recently Elizabeth Warren, who failed to place better than third in a single Super Tuesday state. Tulsi Gabbard, the only woman left in the race, is averaging 1 to 2 percent in national polls.

What gives? POLITICO Magazine asked a group of female political operatives and experts to tell us what they think is going on. Are the current frontrunners two white men because the electorate is sexist? Or were the women just not ideal candidates? And what does this campaign season tell us about who the first woman president will be, what she’ll need to do to win and when she will finally get here? Here’s what they had to say.

‘It’s not that voters don’t see a woman doing the job … they just don’t think she can win’

Stephanie Cutter is a Democratic political consultant and founding partner of Precision Strategies. She was deputy campaign manager for Barack Obama in 2012 and senior aide to President Obama in the White House.

The frontrunners aren’t white men solely because of sexism, but it surely was a factor. Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden as candidates factored in substantially, too. A subset of people thought the DNC stole the nomination for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and weren't going anywhere else but Sanders, regardless of who ran; another subset viewed Biden as the best option because they felt they knew him and liked him, and he could bring out the Obama coalition. There weren't many voters left for the rest of the candidates to be viable, particularly in such a crowded field. Beyond that, electability is a critical factor. Democrats want one thing more than anything—to beat Donald Trump. In some data, gender is a bigger electability issue than age, race, ideology or sexual orientation. It’s not that voters don’t see a woman doing the job of president; they just don’t think she can win an election to become president. Women are just as likely to cite gender as an electability concern as men, particularly in a race against Trump. Some might still be living through PTSD after 2016, while others might be implicitly carrying long-held biases they’ve experienced. It's difficult to know.

But, I think Americans want to support women. They’re electing women across the board in down-ballot races. There were some incredibly qualified and inspiring women that ran for president this year. They outworked and outdebated the men, which is typically what women have to do to succeed. Any one of them could very well be the first woman president. They’re tested and have national recognition and teams to tap into again, which gives them a leg up that normally only men have when thinking about running for president.

‘Democratic voters and leaders treat serious women in the party seriously’

Liz Mair is president of Mair Strategies LLC and former spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee.

Sexism does not remotely figure into the question of who the frontrunners in the Democratic primary are. If anything, Joe Biden’s triumph in Minnesota specifically shows that one woman in Democratic politics has a lot of clout, and a lot more than the media or punditocracy wanted to recognize before Tuesday: Amy Klobuchar.

Unlike Elizabeth Warren, who has long been a media and “netroots” darling, Klobuchar lacked name ID and a major national profile. Despite that, when she was in the race she massively overachieved. Then, she hand-delivered a state Bernie Sanders won four years ago to Biden.

That demonstrates that Democratic voters and leaders treat serious women in the party seriously, and follow their lead. It’s just that Warren is a bad and unappealing candidate who made the mistake of assuming she could win by emphasizing that she has two X chromosomes, taking women voters for granted, making a sort of veiled argument that people should vote for her because otherwise “sexism,” and talking about policy in great detail. These are all great ways to lose elections and underperform, whereas Klobuchar focused on showcasing her likability and relatability, and hammering President Donald Trump hard and consistently in debates. That made her a power player and might even get her a VP nomination, both things that look fairly unattainable for Warren at this point.

This is what candidates, the media, voters and most importantly the consultant class should be taking away from this cycle: Women aren’t inherently more likely to vote for women, and the formula that makes for successful male candidates is the same one that will work for the first successful female candidate for president—solid name ID, viewed favorably, liked, relatable and effective at beating the crap out of her opponents instead of delivering professorial lectures or talking point recitations or ideological word salad in the middle of debates.

‘The perception of sexism and its risks was as high a barrier as sexism itself’

Stephanie Schriock is president of EMILYs List.

The bravest thing someone can do in a democracy is put her name on the ballot, and Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand all showed incredible courage in seeking to have their names at the very top. Their determination to overcome the barriers in their way, including sexism, continues to inspire women and girls across the country. EMILYs List is incredibly proud of them, and grateful for the vital work they do to help women running at every level.

The frontrunners are the only candidates who entered this race having run national campaigns before, with the name recognition that brings. The urgent need to defeat Donald Trump looms large over this primary, and “electability” has been and remains the main focus. The candidates with familiar names and faces wielded a major advantage when it came down to asking voters to trust them to win in November. Polls and subsequent coverage of those polls created a vicious cycle, and one tough news cycle after another made it all the more challenging for the women to break through. Voters repeatedly heard references to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign that suggested—and sometimes even argued outright—that nominating a woman in 2020 would just be too risky. The perception of sexism and its risks was as high a barrier as sexism itself—if not an even higher barrier.

In spite of it all, women can win. Democratic women defied expectations in 2018 to win in historically deep red districts where Trump had won by wide margins. Every election is different. We don’t know who the first woman president will be, but when we at EMILYs List look at the incredible women leaders serving across the country at every level, we’re confident that we already know her, and that she is already forging a new path to the White House.

‘I’m not optimistic about a female president anytime soon’

Jennifer Burton is a Democratic media consultant and owner of the firm SWAY.

Sexism is absolutely a reason that none of the extremely competent women presidential candidates have found success in 2020. If Bernie Sanders were a woman, “she,” as an angry, rumpled candidate, never would have made it beyond Mayor Sanders, and even that would have been a stretch. Likewise, if Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren or Amy Klobuchar were men, I have no doubt that one of them would be our nominee against Donald Trump. The hatred and vitriol Hillary Clinton faced rose to a level of misogyny I’ve never seen. How else did Warren’s organizational and fundraising strength and total takedown of Mike Bloomberg in the debates not boost her? Based on what we’ve seen for the past two cycles, I’m not optimistic about a female president anytime soon, and I never thought I would be typing those words in the year 2020.

‘Candidates matter’

Liesl Hickey is a veteran political strategist, partner at Ascent Media and former executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Imagine if we could remove gender as a consideration from the presidential campaign. What criteria, then, would we be left with on which to evaluate our candidates? Roughly, it would be the quality of her ideas and her ability to articulate them and her perceived ability to follow through on them. Is it possible that this is the kind of contest we’ve just witnessed and that our republic is in fact ready for a woman president but that candidates matter? Being a woman and wanting to be president is the precondition, but then you still have to do everything better than everyone else.

‘[Democrats] are too aware that the rest of the country appears to be fine with misogyny’

Heather McGhee is Demos Action distinguished senior fellow and a policy advocate who endorsed Elizabeth Warren.

Elizabeth Warren had everything that voters say they want in a candidate—charm, humor, intelligence, principles, solutions and an authentic voice. She navigated our implicit sexism against ambitious women by subtly including touches in her stump speech to counter it, as veteran campaign communicator Jennifer Palmieri explained in a widely shared video explainer. For a first-time presidential contender who wasn't even in elected office a decade ago, she wildly exceeded expectations, including by raising $112 million in grassroots donations from 1,250,000 people, all while spending hours after every rally hugging voters instead of glad-handing donors. By many measures, she should have prevailed.

Standing outside her home today, Warren described her loss by saying that the race started out with a Bernie Sanders lane and a Joe Biden lane and that her campaign had erred in believing that there was room for another choice. It’s hard to deny the truth in that today. But those two men held outsized lanes because of the shadow that 2016 cast over everyone. The Democratic electorate has never stopped second-guessing ourselves about how we could have averted the disastrous Donald Trump presidency. So, yes, misogyny has played a role in 2020—not because Democratic voters were too misogynistic to vote for a woman, but because we are too aware that the rest of the country appears to be fine with misogyny, from Trump to Brett Kavanaugh to bans on abortion. Perhaps in 2024, the next presidential primary will have new lanes drawn by the shadow of 2020, the race where we passed over not one but six women presidential candidates and decided, never again.

The same voters who want to see women rise also believe backing a woman … contains risk’

Adrienne Elrod is a Democratic strategist and former director of strategic communications for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.

While sexism in politics certainly remains alive and well, one of the primary reasons the female candidates running for president did not make it to permanent frontrunner status has to do with the false belief many voters have that—simply put—a woman cannot beat Donald Trump. Not only is this theory absurd, but it has already been discredited. After all, Hillary Clinton defeated Trump by nearly 3 million votes—they just happened to be in the wrong states.

To be clear, I don’t believe all voters who believe a woman can’t beat Trump are sexist. There is so much at stake this cycle, and for better or worse, the majority of Democratic primary voters have a clear definition of what a risk-averse candidate looks like: a white man over the age of 75. What remains frustrating is that the same voters who want to see women rise also believe backing a woman for the highest office in the land actually contains risk.

However, this is not a full-on doomsday scenario. There are so many upshots about the number of strong, sharp women who sought the presidency this cycle. At one point, six women were seeking the Democratic nomination, and they each brought their own set of unique strengths and values to the debate. They elevated critical issues that none of the male candidates proactively raised, especially when it came to paid family leave, affordable child care and women’s health. Their willingness to step into the ring only helps to normalize the notion of a female president. And it’s practically a given that the Democratic nominee will pick a woman as his running mate. We will all be better for it.

‘Electability and its coded sexism and misogyny still hold strong in 2020’

Erin Vilardi is founder and CEO of Vote Run Lead, a national training program for women to run for office.

The Super Tuesday results and Elizabeth Warren’s announcement on Thursday made one thing clear: “Electability” and its coded sexism and misogyny still hold strong in 2020. Democratic voters ranked “the ability to beat Trump” as their main concern and decided that—within the deeply ingrained and often invisible institutional norm—it means a woman can’t win.

Sexism is alive and well. Polls from Avalanche Strategies found that (and anecdotes abound show) that Warren was the woman we’ve been waiting for (or insert Kamala Harris or Amy Klobuchar or your favorite female candidate), but that we vote “electability” over who is the best person for the job.

This year was amazing for women with six of them on the ballot for president—an activist, a veteran and four female senators. With one female candidate, the conversation is always about gender; with two, it’s about comparison; but with six candidates, we looked at their agendas. This is good, but at the end of the day, the men will not save us. They don’t know what our power looks like. When they do feel it, they reject it.

So today we mourn. We had six amazing women run, and now the top runners are two old white guys. We acknowledge that this is heartbreaking, and it’s OK to be sad. Tomorrow, though, we’ll organize. Because shit never gets done without women.

‘It is always more difficult to be the first’

Beth Hansen is a Republican political strategist who managed John Kasich’s 2016 presidential campaign.

There was a time when military service was a prerequisite for the presidency: A generation ago, no one thought Americans would elect someone commander in chief who had never served in the armed services. Once that barrier was broken, military service became a question, and likely a valuable asset to leadership, but no longer a qualifier to serve as president of the United States.

There were strong women candidates in the 2020 presidential field (notably, in my opinion, my fellow Midwesterner Senator Amy Klobuchar). I don't believe she did not become president because she was a woman, but I do believe it is always more difficult to be the first. I believe it will be easier for the next African American to become president because of the eight years of service of President Barack Obama.

I believe that Senator Hillary Clinton made it easier for the next woman to become a presidential nominee, and that all female candidates for president regardless of party affiliation lay the groundwork for the inevitable woman president. Why? Because the more voters see female candidates running (and in the case of senator, governor, member of Congress and so many other important offices, winning and leading) the easier it is to look at the candidate's record and qualifications and not wonder what it will be like when a woman is elected the first time.

So what will it take to become first woman president? Women leaders who blaze the trail as candidates and elected officials, and ultimately the same thing it takes any candidate to win: ideas, the ability to articulate those ideas as a vision that connects to voters, hard work, likability …. and a bit of luck.

‘Around the world, women have proved electable’

Glynda Carr is co-founder and president of Higher Heights for America, a PAC dedicated to electing progressive black women to elected office.

This Sunday, we celebrate International Women’s Day, a global recognition of the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. We are reminded that more than 70 nations worldwide have seen a woman lead their governments in the modern era, yet the United States continues to grapple with the question of whether a woman is electable, particularly in this political environment.

We started this election cycle with the most diverse field of candidates, including women ready to lead the country, the most ever. They were continually met with the question of electability, yet they persisted. They helped shape the debate around issues that centered on women. Around the world, women have proved electable, and that the only winning formula does not need to be white + male = electable.

The legacy of the women of the 2020 cycle will help to raise the question, but America are you ready to answer? She is electable, if you vote for her.